Mercedes Floodway Rail Bridge Highlights City’s Railroad History
The 1527-foot long Mercedes Floodway Bridge has felt the weight of many a load over its rails in the years that it has spanned the Mid-Valley.
Steel, scrap metals, bulk plastics and agricultural products of all types have rolled across the long rail bridge since it was built and opened in the early 1950s. The B&P Bridge Company operated the new bridge back then as part of a project to redirect floodwaters away from the broad delta of the Rio Grande and channel it into the beginnings of a floodway system.
Today’s flood control system with its floodways and levees runs throughout the Rio Grande Valley, but is perhaps most identified with Mercedes. The Lower Rio Grande Flood Control Project is headquartered in Mercedes. It maintains flood control levees and diversion dams on over 180 miles of river flow from Penitas in Hidalgo County to the Gulf of Mexico.
Then there’s the vehicular traffic that crosses Expressway 77/83 over the width of the floodway’s main channel in Mercedes, which in times of heavy rains upriver or in the Valley, has water from bank-to-bank, flowing on its way to the Laguna Madre.
The railway bridge over the floodway is part of that imagery. It’s an iconic image in the Valley with its classic wooden trestles design located between the expressway and Business 83. The floodway bridge is part of a rich rail history in Mercedes. The town came into being in 1904, and in July of that year, Mercedes became the first town on the Sam Fordyce Branch of the St. Louis, Brownsville and Mexico Railway.
It was the St. Louis/Brownsville railway that at last linked the beginnings of what would be called the Rio Grande Valley to the rest of the United States and transform its transportation systems. Fordyce was a financier of the project that brought the railroad to Brownsville and the Valley.
Fordyce was a Civil War veteran, (of the Union Army), and after the war would become instrumental in the building of railroads in the South and Southwest, including the St. Louis/Brownsville railway. It was Fordyce who encouraged a group of St. Louis businessmen to form the American Rio Grande Valley Land & Irrigation Company, which was the precursor to the start of what today is known as Mercedes.
It was American Rio Grande Land that would purchase the land that would become Mercedes along with the development of what was then the largest privately owned irrigation system in the world. This marked the beginning of the construction of the canal system that would come to define the Valley and its emerging agricultural industry.
Fordyce made sure the new town had a railroad spur going to it from the new railroad hub in Brownsville. That Mercedes railroad spur in the first half of the 20th Century would be one of the Valley’s focal points in the shipment of citrus and vegetables to markets nationwide. About a decade after the railroad helped start Mercedes, the rails were carrying thousands of soldiers to Camp Mercedes and Camp Llano Grande.
The military camps housed 15,000 soldiers to protect the town from raids led by Pancho Villa of Mexico. There was very little activity of that sort, but the camps did serve as good training and preparation for World War I, which would soon follow, and see all those soldiers leave the Mercedes area for Europe.
Neither the floodway nor the rail bridge were around in those early days. The need to control and manage flooding led to the creation of both and ushered in a new era in the city’s history.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos